Glen Ellyn Garden Walk

November 22, 2012

The back yard haven of furniture maker John Smith

A favorite pastime in my hometown is strolling along village streets and admiring the stately Victorians, post WWII ranches and modern-day mansions. But a garden walk invites visitors beyond the sidewalks and into back yards that have been meticulously groomed into fantasy worlds.

At this year’s Glen Ellyn Garden Walk, a vintage trolley transported ticket-holders to seven homeowner gardens. They ranged in size from sprawling to compact, and in ambiance from elegant to whimsical. One back yard was so shallow, the landscaping unfurled upward–with a dramatic two-story waterfall–instead of out.

First on the list was the Smith garden, where outdoor lounging and dining spaces are delineated by a meandering stream and boulder-rimmed koi pond. The small gingerbread house beyond disguises the potting shed. Homeowner John Smith, a furniture maker, fashioned it from a former chicken coop. That part of town used to be a farm, he told his guests.

Behind the Koral home is an 800-square-foot potager, or “kitchen garden,” where vegetables, herbs and cutting flowers are grown for the family. At the rear of the deep lot is a butterfly garden, bordered by a ring of inverted wine bottles. Tina Koral passed out a list of plantings with both common and botanical names as well as her personal philosophies: Use native plants as much as possible. Try to support wildlife. Never use pesticides, herbicides or fertilizers. Grow organic products and donate the surplus to local food pantries.

Rare in suburbia is the Johnsons’ 4th-floor condominium rooftop garden, which captures distant views of the Chicago skyline. Multiple containers of blossom and green–some sheltered by a pergola, some receiving direct sunlight, often in groupings–soften the functions of outdoor kitchen, bar and hearth.

Inspiration abounds: One gardener collects the many pine cones from her towering evergreens to use as mulch. The Browns eliminated mowing chores by transforming the entire back yard into a model train set-up. And Debbie Helledy turned her front yard into a fairy garden decked with tiny figurines, novelties and glitter. Come back at Christmas when she has the interior decorated for the holidays, she said. We will.

Pine cones are re-purposed as tree mulch.

Clara Anna Brinkman Dittmer, 1904-1995

When I was a child, my grandmother’s house in Plato, Minnesota, was the most wonderful place to be.

None of the other kids’ grandmothers had a bar room, but mine did. The bar room was stocked with candy and ice cream and soda pop and 3.2 beer, and best of all, a juke box. It was a place where, during slow afternoons, when customers were tending their farms, I could turn on the music and dance around the tables, or sit in one of the tall wooden booths and draw pictures of the ballerinas I hoped to become.

My family visited Grandma and Grandpa from far away every summer for two weeks. One year my father told me I had to start paying for the candy and pop I took from the bar room. But when I offered Grandma my carefully saved allowance, she wouldn’t take a cent.

In Grandma’s kitchen, hamburgers and onions sizzled on the stove most of the day and into the night. She cooked for the customers while Grandpa tended bar. They lived in back, on the first floor. The building had once been a stage coach stop, and the second floor was divided into small sleeping rooms. My grandparents turned part of it into an apartment. My bedroom had bunny wallpaper.

Grandpa retired and closed the bar room, but it still got plenty of use. With a table as large as King Arthur’s, it was the ideal spot for extended family gatherings.

Then Grandpa died. Grandma sold the house but moved upstairs as a tenant.

I grew up and, on a few occasions, went to Minnesota for business. I invited Grandma to dinner, but she had no part of it. She would cook, she insisted. With only a few hours’ notice, she could assemble a bevy of relatives and a humongous meal in her modest dining room.

Grandma’s upstairs apartment was a wonderful place to be.

Then Grandma moved to Glencoe, to the senior citizens’ Manor. The last time I visited, she fretted that she couldn’t cook the way she used to. But not one to let a wheelchair and crippling arthritis stand in the way of hospitality, she whipped up a casserole and homemade cookies at the dinette. Later she pulled candy from her cupboards and ice cream cups from her freezer. And she sent me home with cinnamon rolls, warm from the oven.

Grandma’s apartment at the Manor was a wonderful place to be.

Anywhere that Grandma lives is Grandma’s house. She has a new home now, and I know it’s a wonderful place to be.